Is It Still Political Suicide to Run For Office as an Atheist?

Photo by scukrov / 123RF

The perception in America today is that the political atmosphere is so hostile towards the secular and non-religious community that simply coming out as an atheist while in office, or while running for office, would be political suicide. However, assuming other important variables are equal such as fundraising and district voting history, political campaigns are won and lost by analyzing research data, then figuring out how to interpret that data to the benefit of your candidate. Political consultants can’t rely solely on public perceptions, so they have to look at what the data actually tells them about the electability of a particular candidate. So what do the numbers tell us about atheist candidates running for public office?

A Pew Research Poll found that 53 percent of the American public would be less likely to vote for a qualified candidate for President if he were an atheist. However, 41 percent of respondents said that it wouldn’t matter to them at all. That’s significant because it means even when looking at the national electorate, an atheist candidate would only need to convince another 10 percent of voters that he is deserving of their trust and therefore their potential vote. It’s also important to pay attention to the wording of the poll response. Less likely doesn’t mean an absolute vote for another candidate. At the most, it means that an atheist would have to go the extra mile and work even harder to create a positive image to voters that they can be trusted. Even if they are successful however, sadly there will still be a sizable portion of the population who could never trust an atheist. That fact remains true, which is why candidates need to be selective in the districts they run in if they hope to win.

There is a clear partisan divide in terms of acceptance of religious beliefs. In the same Pew poll, Democrats were only 42 percent less likely to vote for an atheist candidate, and 49 percent saying that it wouldn’t matter at all. Republicans, however, are 70 percent less likely to vote for an atheist candidate. Other surveys conducted like a Gallup poll in 2012, reported that 54 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist running for President, a number that has consistently increased over time, jumping from 40 percent in 1978 to 49 percent in 1999. All of this should be very encouraging evidence that, slowly but surely, the non-religious and secular community in America is becoming more accepted in politics, especially in areas with high Democratic voter registration.

This past December, a City Council election was held in Austin, Texas, where candidate Laura Pressley attempted to run a smear campaign against her opponent, Gregorio Casar. Dr. Pressley alleged that Casar’s atheism disqualified him from being eligible to hold office, as the Texas Constitution requires candidates to “acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” This ridiculous prerequisite is in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution, thus rendering it void, but that did not stop the ads from running or from Gregorio Casar to quickly correct the claims about his faith. Pressley was using a paper Casar wrote during his undergraduate education about discussing Russian literature with youth at a correctional center. In the paper, Casar described seeing one of his students as “a symbol of hope … and perhaps a vessel for the God I no longer believed in.” However, Casar told the Statesman that he considers himself a Catholic and that the paper was “more about finding spirituality than losing it.”

Casar goes on to say, “I don’t feel like having a debate with Laura about either of our religious beliefs. It’s not a relevant part of the discussion about what qualifies someone to be a City Council member.” Then, in the most blatant act of political hypocrisy seen in a while, when asked by the Statesman what her religious beliefs were, Pressley said it was a personal matter and declined to go into detail.

To the surprise of many, Casar emerged victorious after capturing 65 percent of the vote. With just a few days before the election, there’s not much evidence that Casar’s rebuttal to Pressley’s claim had any chance of penetrating to voters. They clearly rejected the negative smear tactic that sought to inject religion into politics. But the question remains: Was Casar being genuine in his quick assertion that he was Catholic, or was it based on fear and false perceptions about how voters actually feel about atheist candidates? Casar declined to provide a comment for this article.

This recent example of how a candidate won an election after being labeled by the opposition as an atheist provides valuable evidence in support of the fact that being a nonbeliever with aspirations of one day holding political office is no longer a deal breaker. Yes, it will be harder to get elected as an atheist than a Christian, but the American public is slowly coming to the understanding that one’s lack of belief in a God does not make them an unqualified candidate. With the revelation earlier this year that the United States Congress currently has twenty-four closeted atheists, it is necessary that the public be exposed to a greater number of congressional nominees that are open about their non-religious views, or at the very least, publicly say that they support a secular government. Groups like Openly Secular are advocating for the latter, and the Freethought Equality Fund is helping to identify and support atheist, agnostics, and other freethinkers running for public office. Political comedian and outspoken atheist Bill Maher recently made a video for Openly Secular supporting their agenda which hopes to be a big boost for the organization’s mission. The Freethought Equality Fund identified twelve openly nontheist candidates running for Congressional races in 2014, and spent over $110,000 in the election to support its endorsements. None of these candidates won their campaigns, but their losses had nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with their political views and credibility.

Religion is becoming less important as a topic of discussion in political conversations with voters, and with the rise in voter technology and methods, there is less of a need to go to the local churches to secure the endorsement of that community. Voters care more about which candidate is going to help them find a job or provide a quality education for their children than what god or religion they choose to worship. And atheism is not an ideology. It doesn’t define the character, political views, or the moral foundation of an individual. As credible atheist candidates become more visible to the public, this will become clearer.

One day—sooner rather than later—there will be enough secular representatives in Congress for these currently elected members to feel comfortable sharing the truth about their beliefs, but it will never happen if we are not vocal and active in the political environment. The breaking down of false stereotypes towards atheists can be achieved through openness and understanding. By openly running for office as a nontheist, a candidate becomes a tangible representation of the community as a whole, and through this, is able to show that one’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should have absolutely no bearing on whether or not they are considered a good person or a qualified candidate.

If a nominee in Texas is able to be labeled as an atheist and still emerge victorious in their election, such a task can be achieved in the other forty-nine states, particularly in districts that are more favorable towards progressive politics. The political atmosphere in America is becoming more and more comfortable with voting for nonbelievers, and it is our responsibility to continue the push towards equality. The ball is in our court. We can play it safe and continue with the way it has always been, or we can take a stand, be vocal, and ignite a movement that has the potential to finally represent secular Americans in politics.